In 1997, Thomas Pirtle, a Houston lawyer, heading a team of lawyers suing Dow Chemical Co over allegedly defective silicone breast implants, was sanctioned and fined $2500 for shaking his head and waving his arms in disgust at his opposing attorneys.

Was his conduct really that appalling? I guess none of us were there but when does courtroom ‘flair’ end and inappropriateness begin? Another legendary Texas trial lawyer apparently used to slip a paper clip in his cigar to keep the ash from falling off, capturing the jury’s attention just as his opponent was trying to make a critical point. Now anyone who remembers cigarette smoke on commercial planes might not even flinch at the cigar in the courtroom reference but it sounds pretty Don Draper-ish and scandalous (and kind of cool?!) to me.

With so much of our communication being non-verbal, what is expected of attorneys, clients and jurors from the courtroom to the conference room?

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

A study by the University of Illinois showed that a whopping 93% of all communication is delivered through nonverbal cues, with 55% made up of appearance and body language, 38% tone of voice and only 7% the words we use.

It seems our body movement, gestures, intonations and sartorial choices mean much more than what we actually say. So how do we adjust our body language and play it correctly in different situations?

Where do I place my hands?

Where do I place my hands?

Trial Time

According to Diamond Reporting, a lawyer’s overall aim should be to be perceived as trustworthy by everyone you encounter, especially in a trial or deposition scenario. So in order to win over and influence clients, judges and jurors alike, they recommend that you should:

  • Show control and dominance of by making yourself appear physically larger with a wider stance or with your hands on your hips,
  • Do not cover your mouth to avoid being seen as a liar or as deceptive,
  • Display confidence and power by tenting your fingers and refrain from clutching edge of desk or table so as not to seem “desperate” or nervous.
  • Observe the jury closely, find out who the thought leader is and address your arguments primarily to this person,
  • Watch judges for subtle facial cues that could indicate negativity towards you, your client, or opposing counsel or clients. This can give you great insight into your next move,
  • Act as a courtroom leader by making everyone feel as comfortable as possible, earning you the respect of jurors, judges and even opposing counsel, and
  • Exercise objections carefully in a firm tone of voice, neither angry nor aggressive.

As an advocate with many years of courtroom experience, I would also recommend that you try to be natural, be yourself and have confidence in your arguments. Juries and judges alike respond to frank and fair play in the courtroom so keep your body and gestures fairly open and focus on decent eye contact. With juries, some empathetic looks (perhaps from your instructing solicitor or sidekick) and a bit of humour (where appropriate) will also win hearts and minds in certain situations.

Mary Ellen Sullivan, Author at Attorney at Work, also recommends that lawyers watch juries to see what they are open to and what they are not. “They also rather quickly become a tight group, so if you can persuade one juror, you can start to persuade all of them. Watch closely to find out who the real leader is, then address your arguments to him or her. Create a connection by matching and mirroring the leader’s body language,” says Mary.

Lawyers should also train clients to act appropriately in the courtroom – make sure they dress respectably, sit up straight, stand up when the jury walks in and out of the courtroom (this happens in Australian courts) to show respect for the people who sit in judgment on their case, and above all, appear interested and engaged at all times – jurors won’t like it if you or your client look more bored than they actually feel!

Michael Scott, extreme body language.

Michael Scott, extreme body language.

The Office: Clients, Colleagues and Conference Rooms

You can relax a little with clients and colleagues in more informal settings but the key communication and body language factors remain: showing confidence and empathy in equal measure, good posturing and eye contact, a strong handshake and listening attentively to the client’s instructions and anecdotes. All of this will help you build a rapport with your clients (and colleagues) outside of the courtroom.

For sales pitches and networking, you can add a little flair and flamboyance to show off your personality but remember, try not to do a cringeworthy ‘Carell’ when trying to snag potential clients – you might just get a big slap in the face for your OTT efforts (read: Victoria’ Secret catalogues and subliminal sex references in presentations are to be avoided at all costs).

Here are five tips to help up your ante with body language.

  1. Make Eye Contact: Certified image consultant, Beverley Samuel, says that good eye contact shows that you are sincere and honest. He recommends looking anywhere in the eye-nose-triangle for 2/3 of the time, then you can look away for 1/3 of the time.
  2. Smile: A nice smile will give the impression of a positive, friendly, enthusiastic personality.
  3. Listen: Take the time to actually listen and understand to what the other person is saying, be attentive, use their name and ask follow up questions to engage in the conversation or dialogue.
  4. Give a One Pump Shake: No wet fish handshakes, please. A one pump, firm handshake is the preferred method. “Make sure that the webs of both hands are toward the ceiling and that the joined hands are not closer to one person than the other. This is the handshake that says, “I seek to co-operate with you on equal terms,” says Samuel.
  5. It’s all About Posture: To show your confidence, sit up straight or stand tall and develop good posture. Posture also comes in handy for postural echoing, mirroring the other persons’ gestures or stance to show you accept their emotional state or doing the opposite if you want to disagree with what they are saying and to stand out from the pack (postural dissonance).

So keep it cool and follow the guidelines in a trial setting but most of all, be confident, stay open, exude “I’m trustworthy” and be true to yourself.

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